Underneath the Arches

For most of London’s history there was only one bridge spanning the Thames, then in a building frenzy most of the modern crossings we know today where built. With a proposed new Garden Bridge a major exhibition Bridge has opened at The Museum of London Docklands. In this Guest Post Alan Kean author of Isle of Dogs Life has had the opportunity to join waterborne Dan Cruickshank and reviews the exhibition.

[T]o give some insight into the exhibition, the museum organised a trip on the river by Thames Clipper to have a closer look at some of London Bridges. With renowned architectural historian Dan Cruikshank as our guide, we departed London Bridge Pier and were made aware that it was once London Bridge that dominated the Thames for over 1,700 years.

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It was in the 18th and 19th century that a series of bridges were built over the Thames that meant that London Bridge lost its unique position in London and when the medieval bridge was finally pulled down in 1830 to be replaced by an elegant but not iconic stone bridge, it lost most of its historical significance.

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The bridges opened up the city to encourage development of the South of the River and enable freedom of people to move between the North and South especially when tolls were done away with. When you’re on the river and get past Tower Bridge heading west, you quickly realise how many bridges there are, ranging from pedestrian, railway and multipurpose bridges.

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A few surprising facts are given by Dan Cruikshank  such as the solid-looking London Bridge is actually  hollow inside, in fact in the exhibition is a photograph by Lucinda Grange  which illustrates this.

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Inside London Bridge (copyright Lucinda Grange)

 A couple of rather unusual facts was that Waterloo Bridge is known as the ‘Ladies Bridge’ because it was said it was mostly built using the labour of women in the Second World War, it also has a more melancholy reputation due to the high number of people who have committed suicide throwing themselves from it.

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The exhibition has a large number of exhibits that show existing and demolished bridges in paintings, prints and photographs, however it will also look at the way artists and writers have used bridges in their work.

It is perhaps with some irony that the Bridge Exhibition will take place in a warehouse in the West India Dock area because it was the shipping trade that curtailed any suggestion of bridges east of Tower Bridge. The only major crossings attempted in this area were the tunnels at Wapping, Rotherhithe and Blackwall.

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Opening to public on the 27th June, but just before the big day the press was given access to what is likely to be one of the highest profile exhibitions ever held at the Museum of London Docklands.

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The exhibition is based in the 19th century warehouse which provides the ideal setting for the paintings, prints, photographs and films.

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Old Hungerford Bridge – William Henry Fox Talbot (copyright Museum of London)

 Without doubt the star of the show is the very early photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, it is quite incredible that the photograph has survived at all. Called  ‘ Old Hungerford Bridge’ the photo was taken in 1845 , when Fox Talbot was beginning to perfect the process that would dominate photography for the next 150 years. It is somewhat ironic that the bridge built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel only survived 15 years but this extremely fragile photograph has survived over 160 years.

The Exhibition is built around the themes of Bridge, River, Building , Crowds and Icons.

The Bridge theme considers the way that London for a long period reliant on London Bridge for a crossing, in the 19th century went through a Bridge building explosion fuelled by the industrial revolution and the growth of the railways.

Etchings by Whistler illustrate this growth and pays  homage to Old Westminster Bridge.

The painting by Joseph Farrington made in 1789 gives an almost dreamlike impression of London before major building works on the river began.

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Lucinda Grange with a very rare photo of inside London Bridge

 More recently the photograph taken inside London Bridge by Lucinda Grange challenges some of our preconceptions of bridges.

The River theme makes the obvious point that without the river, London as we know it would not probably exist. The Thames has been a constant through centuries of change and has provided major challenges  to those who would like to cross it . The William Raban film provides a visual tour through some of the stranger aspects of the river.

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The Building theme remind us that building bridges are not always an easy process and are often sources of great engineering ingenuity.

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The etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi of Blackfriars Bridge in 1766 illustrates some of the weird and wonderful designs that do not always come to fruition, the recent Thomas Heatherwick  proposal for a Garden Bridge may be  a classic case of this phenomenon.

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Thomas Heatherwick (copyright Arup)

The Crowds theme looks at the way that Londoners have used the bridges often for their daily commute, this has often fascinated artists and photographers. The picture by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson from 1927 illustrates London as a working  industrial city.

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Finally, the exhibition looks at the way that the bridges themselves become Icons and how they come to represent the city as a whole. For many centuries London Bridge had its iconic role, however in more recent times Tower Bridge has become a focus of world attention especially during the 2012 Olympic Games.

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Ewan Gibbs, London, 2007

Ewan Gibbs Linocut offers a different view which in many ways references Whistler’s work.

Though the  exhibition is relatively small, its ambition and themes are large. Like the Museum’s recent exhibition Estuary  it examines how the river has played a major part in London’s development and how Bridges have become an integral part of that story.

Using the Museum of London’s considerable art resources past and present, this free exhibition is one not to miss and if your bridge fixation is not satisfied visit other parts of the museum to see a scale model of Old London Bridge and many other interesting exhibits.

Museum of London Docklands – Bridge exhibition 27th June – 2nd November, 2014 – FREE

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